Friday, February 06, 2015

Distinctive voices on the economy

There was a flurry of conversation on twitter this morning among baptists about the economy. It arose in the wake of an excellent piece by Maurice Glassman in this week's Church Times (You can read that here). The question was asked whether baptists have anything to contribute to this debate.

Leaving aside the 'me-too' aspect of this, there is a fundamental question about whether any section of the church has a view of these matters. People talk about Catholic Social Teaching (capital letters and all), pointing to a centuries' long tradition of thought and reflection in this field. It might be churlish of me to point out that social teaching is different from, though it might include, economic thinking. But defining terms is quite important here. By economics I think we are talking about the way money is managed by individuals, companies and governments; how work is organised and rewarded; how manufacturing and trading take place; and, in our system, how capital relates to labour and the financial sector to the 'real' economy.

Anglicans published a book last month edited by John Sentamu and called On Rack or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain's Future. It contains some very good, though-provoking essays that could help churches inform their discussion of issues in the run-up to the election this year. In the book there's a good essay by Andrew Sentance, former member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, who is currently economic adviser to PWC (the accountants who are today getting something of a drubbing from the Commons Public Accounts Committee!).

My feeling about his essay is that it reflects the views of Andrew Sentance (and there's nothing wrong with that) rather than the views of a 'tradition' that stretches back down the centuries. In particular he talks of three key principles that should guide our thinking: sustainable growth, shared prosperity and responsible business. In this, he is in the mainstream of economists in general and what he says invites careful thought - whatever our faith position - but makes no real claim to be distinctly Anglican or Christian.

It was suggested on twitter than we look for a baptist voice in this area. It was pointed out that we probably wouldn't have much to contribute. And there's some truth in that. But maybe a group of baptist economic thinkers would bring something distinctive to their thinking about  the economy derived from their distinctive theology of people and community. But pressed to say what that is, I would find myself floundering.

Last year, I wrote a booklet for Grove Books on Paul and Poverty reflecting on the apostle's distinctive ideas about issues that we would now call 'economic'. In particular, as a baptist who teaches New Testament to theological students, I would want to emphasise Paul's focus on equality among the people of God as an example to the wider society. Now, Andrew Sentance talks about growing inequality in the UK being a major issue facing our society today. He's dead right. But mechanisms for creating greater equality, beyond changes to the tax system, are largely lacking in his prescriptions for policy.

Is there room for a baptist reader in this area? The answer is probably 'yes'. But are there any baptists who could contribute to it? This brings us to the number of books that have been written by Christians of all hues about the economy over the past twenty or thirty years. It would be true to say that pretty much all of them reflect the view of the author rather than the tradition within which that author notionally sits.

I was going to come up with an exhaustive list but cannot think of too many at present. But here's a handful: Brian Griffiths wrote a trenchant defence of free markets from a Christian perspective (he was Margaret Thatcher's favourite economist); E. Philip Davis reflected on the economic crash  without talking about the jubilee which stands at the heart of a biblical understanding God dealing with debt (a fundamental cause of the crash); Jim Wallis weighed in with his astute analysis of the culture that gave rise to the crash; Peter Selby offered incisive reflections on the role of money in our culture. All these offer trenchant views but it's hard to fit any of them into a recognisable strand of Christian tradition; rather they each draw from the Bible and theology, as well as their understanding of economics (whatever strand of that 'science' they are wedded to) and create a unique view.

So, are there any Baptists out there working in the field of economics in universities, city institutions, think tanks or any other field of endeavour who are up for doing some baptist thinking on the economy? It would be really interesting to know...

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